People can’t wait to get inside Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Four years ago, a bus driver didn’t even bother to leave her bus: She drove it across two lanes of traffic, plowing into the side of the Victorian that houses Kate Mattes’ store. One wall came down. Kate had to close for two months, but for the remainder of the year-plus of renovation, the store kept going as the heart of mystery life in New England — and beyond.
The red house with its black trim looks like a setting for high-gothic drama. During rebuilding, Kate found a love letter in the wall, put there by the woman whose true love built the house for her in 1862. Romance! Suspense! The very stuff of Victoria Holt or Phyllis Whitney.
Inside the house, three rooms are furnished for comfort: Armchairs that invite lingering sit before lace curtained bay windows. Readers will find every kind of book the mystery addict craves. Kate’s special sections — created in response to reader demand — range from ”Traditional British” to ”Cyberpunk,” with 12 shelves devoted to ”Strong Women.” A special case in front contains ”Kate’s Picks,” such as The Good Fight by Lia Matera, Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen, and Night Angel by Kate Green. She has her pans, too. Only the intrepid will carry a book bearing her label ”This book is offensive to women” to the cash register.
What brings people back to Kate’s is the warmth she exudes. For Kate, 44, the store was long a secret dream during her 15 years as a social worker and community organizer. Her parents’ deaths made her take stock. ”They didn’t live to do the things they planned for their retirement,” she says. ”I wanted to make sure I had a chance to realize my own dreams.” Robert Parker, creator of the Spenser series, helped build shelves when the store opened in 1983. When Jeremiah Healy (Blunt Darts) and William Tapply (Dead Meat) started writing, they met at Kate’s as part of a mystery writers’ group called Cadavers.
Established writers like Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman return with each new book. They remember Kate’s support when they were starting out and the publishing industry didn’t care if they lived or died. She did for them what she does for tyros now: schedules signings, takes them to dinner with interested readers — on occasion even provides a bed in her two-story flat above the store.
Readers feel Kate’s warmth as well. Over wine and cheese, they can meet their favorite writers, give new ones a boost — or just get together on a cold winter night to discuss their mutual true love: mystery.
— Sara Paretsky, the best-selling author of Burn Marks, has edited a collection of mystery stories by women called A Woman’s Eye, due this fall.